How to Tackle a Serious Mess

You’re staring at a mountain of empty takeout containers, dirty socks, papers, soda cans, books with spills on them, and a tangled length of cloth from that sewing project you promised your friend you’d do. Under all that, it’s rumored, is bedroom furniture. Your mattress has a bare spot on it where you sleep, approximately a third the size of the actual mattress. It hasn’t seen sheets in months. You’re not sure what color the floor is. And you’re staring at the lot of it in horror, wondering, “Where do I even start?”

Tackling a serious mess can be overwhelming, and some people don’t even tackle a moderate mess because it’s too much. I know someone who’s broken down in tears staring at a serious mess. Now you’re looking at tackling the mess and making the place livable — or getting evicted for poor housekeeping.

An old saw about tackling major projects asks, “How do you eat an elephant?”

The answer to that question is: “One bite at a time.”

The same applies to tackling a serious mess. You handle one thing, or one area, at a time, and don’t worry about the rest of it yet. Let’s break this down and make a plan.

NOTE: The following method is written with a full-blown hoarding situation in mind, and I’ve used it to tackle hoarding situations. Your situation probably isn’t that bad, and you may be able to skip some steps depending on what is and is not actually part of the mess. You may also have other elements that I don’t include here. Add them as single elements to your plan.

Step 1: Remove Garbage

Grab a trash bag or two, or three, or however many you think you’ll need. Scour the messy area for anything that you’re sure is garbage — the soda cans and empty takeout containers, for example. Any food that you didn’t put down less than an hour ago is garbage. Make sure to get not just everything on the floor, but also things on the furniture. Take any garbage bags that are full to the dumpster or garbage area for pickup.

๐Ÿ’ก๐Ÿ‘‹: Need help identifying what is and isn’t garbage? Enlist a friend who can help you decide.

Step 2: Remove Food and Dirty Dishes

Scour the messy area (including the furniture) for any food or dirty dishes that aren’t currently in use. All food goes in the garbage. Take the dirty dishes to the kitchen (or if there are too many, to the bathtub) and fill each of them with warm water. Leave those to soak and proceed to Step 3.

Step 3: Remove Laundry

Grab either a laundry bag or another trash bag. Scour the messy area, including furniture, for anything that can be considered laundry. Clothing, sheets, towels, blankets, anything of that nature counts in this category. If it’s scattered on the floor or not neatly put away, you probably should wash it again, so if you aren’t sure, it should go in the laundry.

Step 4: Determine What Should Be Donated

Grab a box or bin. Scour the room, including floor and furniture, for items that you no longer want or need but that are in good working order or wearable, and toss these items into the box. When the box is full or you’re done with this step, mark it for donation to your local Goodwill or other charity of your choice, seal it with tape, and set it aside.

๐Ÿ’ก ๐Ÿ‘‹ Some people have a tough time letting go of belongings that they no longer need or can use. If this is you, enlist a friend to talk you through it.

Now, take a good look around the area. Chances are, taking care of those three low-hanging fruits has made the area look a good bit different. Your next step is to figure out what to do with the stuff that didn’t fit into the other categories. This leads us to Step 5.

Step 5: Prepare A Sorting Area

Choose a fairly large piece of furniture in the area you’re cleaning to serve as a sorting area. If you’re cleaning a living room, the couch is a good choice for this. If a bedroom, the bed is ideal. If a public space, maybe a dining room table. The floor isn’t a good choice, because you’ll want to clear that space first in future steps.

Once you have your choice, identify everything on it that isn’t where it belongs. Sort these items into four piles:

  1. Items that don’t have a home (you don’t know where they go);
  2. Items that have a home, but that home is in another room;
  3. Items that have a home somewhere else in this room.
  4. A jar or a bowl for small items such as coins, screws, push pins, etc. that end up in the corners of every room.

๐Ÿ’ก It is often helpful to put pile #2 in a laundry basket or other container next to the furniture in question. This lets you remove them from the room in Step 7 or Step 8 if that makes those steps easier.

Step 6: Sort The Out-of-Place Items

Scour the entire area for items that aren’t where they belong, and sort them according to the system you created in Step 5. This means everything that isn’t actually in its home, even if it belongs in the same room. Just sort it for now; you’ll put it where it belongs later.

๐Ÿ’ก Normally I advocate handling each item once and only once, but in this case, sorting it all first lets you see how much space you really have in that spot, and whether maybe you need to move something to a different spot.

Step 7: Go Under and In the Furniture

Move all the furniture in the room. Open every drawer in the room. Dig into the couch cushions. Execute Steps 1-4 and Step 6 on everything you find.

Step 8: Clean the Rest Of the Room

By now, the rest of the room aside from your sorting area should look pretty manageable. Deal with any pests you find. Dust, vacuum, polish, and remove stains and spills from every surface except your sorting area.

Step 9: Put The Sorted Things Away

Now it’s time to turn your attention to your sorting surface. Using your newfound space in this room, first put everything away in pile #3 away where it belongs.

Pile #1 will take the longest to address. For each item, you need to decide where it belongs, whether it is this room or another. If it belongs in another room, add it to pile #2. If it belongs in this room, find it a spot that makes sense to you and put it there.

๐Ÿ’ก ๐Ÿ‘‹ If you’re not good at figuring out where it makes sense to put an item, enlist the help of a friend who is a good organizer.

๐Ÿ’ก This may be a good time to split pile #2 into smaller piles by what room the item belongs in, especially if you have many rooms to tackle. You can then take each pile into the appropriate room and address it when you tackle that room.

Pile #4 should be accorded a home of its own, whether in this room or another. Separate out the screws and other small items. Having a change jar somewhere in the house helps you save, and more than a few times I’ve taken a full change jar to the coin sorter in the grocery store and gotten enough cash to pay for my groceries that week!

Step 10: Clean Your Sorting Area

Execute Step 8 on your sorting area. Dust, polish, vacuum around it, remove any stains and spills.

Ta-da! You should be left with a cleaned room.

Step 11: Wash The Dishes

Remember all those dishes you left in the kitchen or bathtub in Step 2? Go wash them and put them away where they belong.

A Final Word

Whew! That’s a lot of work, and it probably took you several hours to do. To avoid having to go to that much effort again, it’s best to pick up after yourself as you go. Every time you finish with an item, put it back where it belongs. Dirty laundry belongs in a hamper or laundry bag, and should not stop for a cup of tea on the floor. Garbage should go straight to the trash can instead of happy hour on your desk. Dirty dishes should go straight to the kitchen before you go to bed on the day you used them, or as soon as you’re done with them. You’ll spend far fewer spoons cleaning in this way than you probably spent on the steps above.

Don’t forget to take the box of donations you put together in Step 4 and take all that stuff to the charity you choose.

๐Ÿ’กโœ๏ธ Do you itemize on your taxes? If you’re just starting out, probably not. If you own your home, you probably do. If you do, be sure to take note of what you donated to charity, because the fair market value of all that stuff is deductible on your taxes! Charitable donations up to $500 can be claimed as tax deductions without documentation, but many thrift shops and charities can provide this documentation to you. Check out ItsDeductible from Intuit to help you determine fair market value for your stuff.